Thursday, August 27, 2015

Winners and Losers from the US Open Draw

It may be fun to talk US Open predictions as soon as Cincinnati is over, but the reality is that until the draws are released any prediction is largely meaningless.  Now that the US Open draws are out and we know what the players are dealing with, here's a look at some winners and losers.


Novak Djokovic: Djokovic simply has to be thrilled with his draw.  In years past this would seem hard to believe, given that he could play Nadal in the quarters.  But the 2015 version of Nadal seems highly unlikely to even take a set off Djokovic, and this match simply won't live up to any hype it's given by the media.  The other high seeds in his half (Nishikori and Ferrer) have injury issues, and seem unlikely to trouble the world number one.  More importantly, Federer, Murray and Wawrinka are all in the other half.  They're the players most likely to trouble Djokovic at the moment, and he'll only have to face one of them in the finals.  Djokovic was the favorite going in regardless of his draw, and is an even heavier favorite now.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Dimitrov may be having a down year, but his draw gives him the chance to have a big US Open.  After an easy couple of opening rounds he could face defending champion Marin Cilic in the third round.  But Cilic hasn't been himself this year, and Dimitrov would have a good opportunity to knock him out.  Ferrer, who hasn't played in forever and is battling injuries would be next.  Nishikori, who missed Cincinnati with a hip injury could be waiting in the quarters.  This doesn't mean you should necessarily pick Dimitrov to make the semis in your bracket, but his draw was as friendly as it could have been.

Victoria Azarenka:  Azarenka had to run into Serena earlier than she would have liked at the French Open and Wimbledon, and fell to Serena in tight three setters at both events.  She won't have to worry about Serena until the very end this time, and if she's recovered from her leg injury that forced her to withdraw in Cincinnati she'll be a threat to make the finals.  She beat Kvitova easily in Toronto (a potential semifinal opponent), and the former two-time finalist is definitely a contender given her manageable draw.


Serena Williams:  No one said trying to win the calendar Grand Slam should be easy.  Serena could have to get through dangerous young Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys in rounds three and four.  Belinda Bencic, who she lost to in Canada could be waiting in the quarters, and Maria Sharapova could be Serena's semifinals opponent.  In the finals, she could have to deal with Kvitova, Halep, or Azerenka.  Sure Serena will be heavily favored against each of these opponents, but that doesn't mean it will be easy to run through all of them if they each make it to play Serena.  Serena remains the fairly heavy favorite to take the title, but if she starts feeling the pressure of going for the Grand Slam or simply comes out flat one day, she could be vulnerable to an upset given her extremely rough draw.  She's had plenty of close calls in Grand Slams this year, and it looks like the US Open could be more of the same.

Young Guys:  Several of the ATP's brightest young stars may just have to wait a little bit longer to break through in New York given their brutal draws.  18 year old Borna Coric just missed being seeded, and has to play Nadal in round one.  (Not a good draw for Nadal either, as the youngster did manage to beat Nadal at the end of 2014).  19 year old Thanasi Kokkinakis has a great future on tour, but opens with Richard Gasquet who just took him out in Cincinnati.  And in the blockbuster match of round one, 20 year old Nick Kyrgios (who just received a strangely "delayed" suspension) opens with third seed Andy Murray.  These young guys will likely make several deep runs at the US Open down the road, just don't expect it to happen in 2015.    

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some Thoughts Following the Cincinnati Masters

Federer showed he's a contender in New York, but...:  Roger Federer once again showed he's ageless in taking the title in impressive fashion.  He dispatched of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic without too much trouble, and clearly is in great form.  However, while a good argument can be made he's the second favorite heading into the US Open (yes, Djokovic is still the heavy favorite), Federer has often looked great heading into slams in recent years without taking the title.  It certainly won't be a shock if he does pull it off, but it's also getting tough to ignore recent history.  Unlike in Cincinnati where Murray and Djokovic were worn down from a very draining week in Canada, both will be fresh in New York.  Federer knows he may not have many more chances to steal a final grand slam and will be extremely confident, but it's still more likely Djokovic or Murray will be holding the US Open trophy. 

Alexandr Dolgopolov knows how to take advantage of an opportunity:  During qualifying in Cincinnati it became clear that Kei Nishikori was probably going to withdraw after his injury in Canada, so the big question was who was going to take the fourth seed's coveted place in the draw (and accompanying bye into the second round).  Benoit Paire may have thought it was going to be him as a lucky loser following his spot as the top seed in qualifying, but Dolgopolov was awarded the spot.  He certainly benefited by the draw to some degree, but Dolgopolov played some great tennis on his way to the semifinals where he nearly took down Djokovic.  Dolgopolov hadn't been in great form heading in, but posted solid wins over Tomic, Janowicz, and Berdych.  This should give him some much needed ranking points, and he'll clearly be a player seeds will want to avoid early in New York.   

The "Next" Generation is progressing nicely, but still a year or two away:  Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jared Donaldson were all in the Cincinnati main draw and played like they all belonged. Donaldson and Kokkinakis each won their first round matches, and Coric took down Zverev 7-6 in the third in a very high quality match.  Ultimately, Coric went down to Wawrinka in respectable fashion, Donaldson fell to Janowicz in a tight two setter, and Kokkinakis fell to Gasquet.  They might not be quite ready to compete with the world's best on a consistent basis, but it's looking like it won't be long.  Sure they need a bit more seasoning, but multiple members of this group could hold this trophy at some point down the road. 

Nadal and Cilic still can't gain much needed traction:  Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic both fell in the Round of 16 at Cincinnati and thus were unable to build momentum for their US Open campaigns.  Cilic may be the defending champion, but he's certainly vulnerable to an early exit based on his current form.  He'll have a lot of pressure to make a deep run giving all the ranking points he's got to defend, but it's hard to see him going past the quarters if he even makes it that far.  Similarly, it's hard to imagine Nadal being confident about his US Open chances given his losses to Nishikori and Lopez at the Montreal and Cincinnati Masters.  Beating Nadal in a three out of five set match is never easy, but Nadal has played himself out of the top set of contenders in New York.  

Expect More Controversy in Tennis' Future

For most of the last decade during tennis' "golden age" on the men's tour, the sport has mostly steered clear of major controversies.  The Big Four clearly reigned supreme, and everyone else seemed to know their place.  There may have been some minor dustups between members of the Big Four (notably Federer and Djokovic), but they've largely gotten along given how often they run up against each other.  They all seemed to realize they're more marketable if they "keep it classy", and have taken steps to maintain pristine images.

It looked like the next generation was going to follow in the Big Four's footsteps in terms of their images.  Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov all seem to be liked by other players and fans, and minus a few harsh words by Serena aimed at Dimitrov there hasn't been much controversy following this group.  However, they've also failed to take the next step to consistently challenge the Big Four on the court (or are at least taking their sweet time in doing so). 

Just when the ATP Tour thought it was safe and that juniors would learn from the Big Four, along came the even younger and more talented group of players such as Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev.  This group has gotten a lot of attention following Kyrgios' recent controversy, and people seem to be realizing what the tour could be in for as the Big Four begins to wind down.  (Though at this rate it seems like Federer will still be firmly entrenched in the top ten when he's 47).  All of the above players are extremely talented and should be some of the tour's best over the next decade, but are widely considered to be varying degrees of temperamental or controversial. 

Everyone has their opinion about whether the tour is better or worse with some controversial players at the top, and it's hard to reach a definitive answer.  Some tennis purists will hate it, others will enjoy the added intrigue, and the rest will find some controversy entertaining so long as it doesn't go past a certain point.  Regardless of one's opinion on the issue, it's looking like it won't be long until we once again find out what it's like to have controversial figures ruling the sport. 

There's a chance they'll tone it down as they get older and realize they're losing potential endorsements.  Djokovic and Murray were considered controversial to some extent when they were newer on tour, but now both are incredibly well respected.  However, at this point it's hard to see all (or even most) of this younger group making such a transition.  Assuming they don't, tennis fans may soon feel like they're stepping back into the McEnroe and Connors years of the 70s and 80s, as opposed to following the "golden age" of the Big Four.    

Monday, August 10, 2015

Some Thoughts Early In the Week At The Montreal Masters

Roger Federer may be resting, but most everyone else will be trying to get some valuable ranking points and momentum for the US Open at this week's Montreal Masters.  Below are some thoughts as the top players return to action at the biggest tournament since Wimbledon.

Djokovic will be looking to send a message:  Just like in 2014 Novak Djokovic enters Canada as the Wimbledon champion, but he'll be looking to avoid a repeat of the slip up he suffered last year in Canada and Cincinnati.  It's impossible to tell what effect if any his early losses last year had on his US Open semifinals defeat, but it may have given the rest of the field the belief that he was beatable.  Djokovic will be looking to remind the field that he's simply a level above everyone else, and he'll have his guard up after what happened last year.  His 2015 has been nearly flawless, and barring another in the zone performance by Wawrinka it's hard to see anyone stopping him in Montreal

Will any Americans make some noise?  John Isner has been the leading American man so far this summer, but it's not likely he'll have much left in Montreal after deep runs in Atlanta and Washington D.C.  Isner's draw isn't bad if he's able to give it a go, but three weeks in a row is probably too much for the big man.  Jack Sock has had a somewhat disappointing summer, and has a chance to win a few matches before facing Djokovic in the Round of 16.  Donald Young already has beaten Denis Kudla, but has to face Tomas Berdych in his next match.  Sam Querrey also already won his first round match, and could play Steve Johnson next if Johnson is able to upset David Goffin.  Johnson had a nice run in Washington D.C., and could put a scare into the world number 14.  The best bet to make the quarters is probably Johnson or Querrey, on the hope that Nishikori is a bit worn down from winning the title in D.C. last week.     

Can Thiem carry his momentum to North America?  One of the most exciting players of the summer has been 21 year old Dominic Thiem, who won two 250s on the European clay and made the semis of another.  He's up to 18 in the world, and is at 14 in the points race.  He's clearly supremely talented, but the next question is whether he's ready to become a contender at the big events.  Montreal is as good of a place to start as any, and a quarterfinal matchup against Djokovic would be a great test to see where he stands against the world's best. 

If Djokovic slips up, who will be ready to take advantage?  Djokovic is certainly the favorite, but if he doesn't come to Montreal ready to play there are a handful of others who could be ready to step up.  Murray is the second seed, but lost early in Washington D.C.  He should be more prepared for Montreal, and will be looking for momentum to jump start his summer.  Wawrinka and Raonic haven't played since Wimbledon and could be dealing with rust, but are always some of the most dangerous players on tour.  Nadal will be hoping his good form in Hamburg carries over to hard courts, but he's still a bit of a question mark.  If Nishikori has enough left after a tiring week in Washington he'll be a threat as well.  But if Djokovic does somehow fall early like last year, Murray is clearly the next best bet to win the title in Montreal

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Is Dominic Thiem Ready To Make His Move?

Dominic Thiem is a name tennis fans have been familiar with for a few years now, and he became one of the games' brightest young prospects based on his success early in 2014.  He's still just 21, but a somewhat poor end to 2014 and beginning to 2015 saw Thiem get passed in the hype machine by even younger and supposedly brighter prospects (i.e. Coric, Kyrgios, Zverev, etc).  It's too soon to tell which of these prospects will become the best player, but it's now clear Thiem is back in good form and ready to make a run towards challenging the elite.  He just won back to back 250 level tournaments, and it won't be long before he sets his sights on bigger prizes. 

Winning 250 level tournaments and challenging for Masters and grand slam titles are clearly two different ball games, but Thiem doesn't seem like the type of player who will top out at the 250s.  Regardless of the level of the tournament it's important that Thiem is learning how to win titles, as these experiences should help him in bigger stages.  It's clear Thiem is an ultra-talented player, but lots of players struggle to turn their talent into victories.  The fact that Thiem already has 3 titles at age 21 is a promising sign, as it shows he's got substance to go with his talent.  No young player bursts onto the scene anymore and starts competing for major titles, and Thiem seems to be poised to work his way to the top one level at a time. 

With a powerful baseline game that resembles Stan Wawrinka, Thiem appears to have all the tools required to be successful in today's game.  He hit's heavy and powerful shots off both wings, and possesses an extremely deadly one-handed backhand.  He's got a good serve, moves well and also has good hands.  Seeing Wawrinka have so much success has to give Thiem confidence, as he sees how much trouble his style of play can give the best players in the world.

Realistically, Thiem probably isn't going to start winning Masters and Grand Slams within the next year or two, but there's no reason he shouldn't make a run at the top 10.  He's already in the top 25, and a lot of players ahead of him are getting up there in age and seem very vulnerable to getting passed by Thiem.  By the time he's 23 or 24 much of the current top 10 will likely be winding down their careers, and there's no reason Thiem can't make the jump to becoming one of the top players in the world.

Tennis has been in great hands for the last decade, but it's about time there are some fresh faces playing in the semis and finals of the biggest tournaments.  There's no shortage of young talent at the moment, but Thiem once again has to be considered one of the more likely prospects to excel over the next decade.  Everything seems to be setting up nicely for him, and we shouldn't be surprised if Thiem is at the forefront of the "next generation" when the Big Four's run finally comes to an end.